Byline: Louise Farr
LOS ANGELES — “He always has his shmatta over his shoulder,” clucks restaurateur Barbara Lazaroff reprovingly. She’s watching her husband, Wolfgang Puck, in chef’s whites accessorized with a dish cloth, emerge triumphant from the kitchen. A $400,000, three-sided kitchen, to be exact, at the couple’s new Beverly Hills restaurant, ObaChine.
Puck has spent the last three weeks working on the menu with former Spago sous-chef Naioki Uchiyama, and is still creating.
“I don’t dream about food any more than I dream about sex,” says Puck. “It all happens when I get in the kitchen.”
One by one, dishes land for inspection on a Lazaroff-designed glass-inlaid table: cured salmon sushi, barbecued Vietnamese eel spring rolls, Cambodian shrimp crepes, whole Dungeness crab, tea-smoked Peking duck, followed by apple ginger creme brulee, coconut rice pudding Napoleon, and a fruit soup made with a pomegranate infusion and topped with hibiscus granita.
In a Beverly Hills sated on pizza and pasta, says Puck, variations on Asian foods — which have been sweeping New York — are the wave of the future.
“Eighty-year-old people might not eat it, but people my age or a little older or younger like to experiment. They like variety,” says Puck, 47.
“Like unmarried men,” adds Lazaroff. “And some married ones I know.”
Los Angelenos began experimenting with Puck’s food 15 years ago, when he and Lazaroff opened Spago off the Sunset Strip. They followed with Santa Monica’s Chinois, Granita in Malibu, a Las Vegas Spago, and Postrio in San Francisco. The Beverly Hills ObaChine is expected to spawn others in Seattle and San Francisco. Another Spago opens in Chicago in late December, and early next year, Puck and Lazaroff plan to shutter the original Spago and reopen at the one-time site of Beverly Hills’ Bistro Garden. (In a suit that Puck calls “basically blackmail,” three of Spago’s original shareholders are trying to block the restaurant’s move. Legally they can’t, claims Puck.)
“If we took every offer to open a new restaurant, we’d have them from Bangkok to Hong Kong,” Lazaroff says.
“Barbara would open them and I would close them,” grumbles Puck, crunching on the crisp top layer of the Napoleon. “But you don’t plan to open three restaurants any more than you plan to have three kids. You open one, then somebody comes with a great space and you can’t resist.”
It’s true that Puck is more in favor of finessing the food and Lazaroff is gung-ho for expansion. But that doesn’t mean Puck doesn’t love ObaChine.
“This is right up my taste buds,” he says, eyeing Lazaroff’s characteristically flamboyant interior at the North Beverly Drive site that formerly housed the restaurant TriBeCa.
For ObaChine, she created a downstairs satay bar. Upstairs, tsunami-shaped banquette backs are echoed in the wavy carpet design, and Japanese oba leaves are carved into the wooden backs of rattan chairs. But even Lazaroff, who gets angry when her contributions to the restaurants are ignored, knows that while ambience is well and good, food is what people remember.
They also demand glimpses of a celebrity chef and his exotic-looking wife, and the rapidly expanding Puck-Lazaroff empire means that the team makes the rounds of five or six restaurants every night.
“I smile and I kiss peoples’ tushes,” says Lazaroff.”It’s like being a mom. A mom with drama.”